Harper’s Conservatives have a thing for monarchy, the more absolute the better, it seems.
At home they’ve put up portraits of Queen Elizabeth II and added the moniker “royal” to the Canadian Navy and Air Force while in the Middle East they’ve strengthened Canada’s ties to kingdoms from Morocco to Saudi Arabia.
Jordan’s pro-US/pro-Israel King Abdullah II has been the focus of significant attention with the Conservatives signing a free trade and military cooperation agreement with that country last year. Now the Conservatives are strengthening Canada’s ties to a monarchy confronted by an influx of Syrian refugees, volatile regional geopolitics and popular protests. Even the aid the Conservatives are sending to Jordan for Syrian refugees is largely designed to bolster the country’s monarchy.
Over the past year Jordan has become a central staging ground for Syrian rebel groups. Weapons from the Gulf monarchies and the US are flowing through Jordan and the CIA is training Syrian rebels there. According to France’s Le Figaro, Jordan has opened its airspace to armed Israeli drones monitoring Syria while the Financial Times reports that the US has 1,000 troops and a number of F-16 fighter jets in the country.
While Jordanian officials say they will not let their country be used as a launchpad for any Western military intervention against Syria, they recently allowed the US (and others) to conduct war games near that country’s border. And three weeks ago Jordan hosted the military chiefs from the main opponents of Bashar al-Assad – the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, France, Canada etc. – to discuss the conflict.
Not surprisingly, the Syrian regime is unhappy with its southern neighbour. Syrian officials have said Jordan was “playing with fire” in allowing the US and others to train and arm its opponents, which includes many jihadists who could end up turning on Jordan’s regime. While King Abdullah II likely doesn’t trust the Syrian rebels and is fearful of retaliation from his larger neighbour, Jordan is under significant pressure from Ryadh and Washington to back Syria’s opposition.
As it contributes to instability in Syria, Jordan is also a victim of the conflict. At least 600,000 Syrian refugees have crossed into the country of 6.3 million people. This has added to the pressure on a Jordanian monarchy that’s faced a series of pro-democracy protests over the past two years. Additionally, the US military’s growing presence in the country is not popular.
Worried about the Jordanian monarchy’s ability to survive this volatile political climate, Canada has worked to bolster the regime. Under the guise of helping Syrian refugees, Ottawa (alongside Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the US) has made a series of major aid announcements over the past year. $6.5 million for Syrian refugees in Jordan in August 2012, then another $13 million in March and in June Ottawa announced a three-year $100-million aid package to Jordan.
Buried in Ottawa’s announcements about the Syrian refugee crisis is the fact that much of the money on offer is for “security programming”. Foreign Affairs explains: “Canada is providing equipment and vehicles to the Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF) to assist in their efforts to transport Syrian refugees from the border to registration centres. Canada will also provide equipment and infrastructure support to the Public Security Directorate (PSD), the Gendarmerie Forces (GF) and the Civil Defence Directorate, which provide security and other essential services within new and expanding refugee camps.
“This [$25 million in] support builds upon a previous Canadian contribution … $9.5 million in material support was provided to the JAF to respond to initial transportation needs of Syrian refugees coming across the border, and $2 million in material support was provided to the PSD and the GF in their efforts to manage security within Zaatari refugee camp.”
On top of this $36.5 million in support for Jordan’s security forces, Ottawa is working “to mitigate the threat posed by Syria’s stockpile of weapons of mass destruction”, which will include more “equipment, infrastructure, technology and training to the JAF, the Civil Defence Directorate, the Ministry of Health and other relevant ministries.”
Ottawa isn’t openly admitting that its aid to Jordan for Syrian refugees is designed to prop up the monarchy, but it’s obvious. In June the Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson noted, “Ottawa is concerned that Syrian violence could infect and endanger neighbouring countries, especially the Hashemite Kingdom [Jordan], with which Canada has good relations.”
But there isn’t equal concern for “neighbouring countries”. For instance, there is a striking incongruence in the amount of aid Ottawa has allotted to Jordan versus Lebanon. Though it hosts 20% more Syrian refugees and is only 65% of Jordan’s population, Lebanon has received much less Canadian aid for Syrian refugees. (It should be noted that Lebanon is wealthier than Jordan, but nonetheless the World Bank is estimating that “Syria’s conflict will cost Lebanon $7.5 billion in cumulative economic losses by the end” of 2014)
Ottawa’s aid to Jordan is part of a series of efforts to back the monarchy. In 2012 the Conservatives voted into law a free-trade accord, which Foreign Affairs noted “shows Canada’s support for Jordan as a moderate Arab state that promotes peace and security in the Middle East.”
In addition to the trade accord, the Jordanian military has benefited from Canadian military support. Canada and Jordan signed a defence co-operation memorandum of understanding in the spring of 2012. At the end of last month the Chief of the Defence Staff, Gen. Tom Lawson, met his Jordanian counterpart and, according to the Jordan Times, “discussed ways to boost cooperation and coordination between the two countries’ armed forces.” This meeting followed on the heels of another meeting between the heads of the two countries militaries in April and Canada’s participation in a military exercise with 17 other “friendly” countries, Eager Lion 2013, hosted by Jordan’s armed forces.
Foreign minister John Baird has visited Jordan three times since last August to discuss “the ongoing turmoil in Syria” among other issues. What Baird and Jordanian officials almost certainly don’t talk about is the country’s pro-democracy struggles, which have flared up over the past two and a half years. The Conservatives were silent when thousands of Jordanians marched against the monarchy and for better social conditions in March and April 2011. A handful of protesters were killed and hundreds arrested in a country that prosecutes individuals for “extending one’s tongue” (having a big mouth) against the King.
A few months after the “Arab Spring” protests Foreign minister Baird claimed: “King Abdullah II in Jordan has really expedited reforms they were already working on.” But Baird’s positive portrayal of Jordan’s reforms doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Labour unions and independent media are heavily restricted while elections mean little. In short, Jordan remains an absolute monarchy with power concentrated in the hands of a ruling clique.
Just the way Harper’s Conservatives like it.